World / Science & Health

Google targets nanoparticle tech for health detection


Google Inc.’s research lab said it’s working on nanoparticle technology that could be used in the near future to better detect diseases such as cancer.

The nanoparticles would be swallowed, then controlled to monitor health issues and observed through an external device, Andrew Conrad, head of Google’s life sciences, said Tuesday at WSJDLive, a technology conference in Laguna Beach, California.

“If you buy a new car, it can tell you if your tires are running flat,” Conrad said. “It’s amazing how many sensors sit on a car. Why not have those many sensors sit on something far more important than your transportation?”

The Mountain View, California-based company has been exploring ways to improve health through its secretive Google X research lab. The Internet search giant has teamed up with Novartis AG to develop sensor-enhanced contact lenses that aim to help people with diabetes more easily track their glucose levels, and last month agreed to buy health-technology startup Lift Labs as it pursues new methods to address neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s.

“We’re trying to stave off death by preventing disease,” Conrad said. “Fundamentally, our foe is death.”

Google has been running experiments in nanotechnology, and is “actively” looking for partners to work with on it, he said.

Nanotechnology deals with matter on a scale comparable to the diameter of a strand of DNA, where materials can work differently when it comes to things like light interaction, electrical conductivity and chemical reactions. Scientists are using those properties to come up with new cancer treatments, make cars and airplanes lighter and stronger, and develop alternative energies.

The term is taken from nanometer, a unit of measurement that is one-billionth of a meter. A human hair is 80,000 to 100,000 nanometers wide.

Google has conducted experiments in areas “that give us a little bit of hope,” Conrad said. For example, the company has been able to “functionalize” the nanoparticles, such as using them to find a few cancer cells among a million normal ones, he said.

“We’ve probably done hundreds of thousands of experiments exploring the parameters of nanoparticle binding,” he said. While there is still much work to be done, he said, “we would definitely hope that it’s years, not decades, until this is deployed.”

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